Tree Climbing Lions of Ishasha, Uganda: Majestic Marvels in the Savannahs of Queen Elizabeth National Park
The African wilderness is a stage for the extraordinary, and amidst this grandeur lies an intriguing anomaly: the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth National Park, southwestern Uganda. Imagine a lion perched gracefully on the firm branch of a sprawling fig tree, surveying the savanna below. Yes, you read that right—lions, famed for their ground-dwelling nature, have developed a knack for living in trees in certain corners of Africa. Let’s explore this fascinating phenomenon with Uganda’s big cats and how to watch firsthand lions climbing trees in Africa.
Why Do Lions Climb Trees?
African lions, renowned for their power and social structures, typically avoid climbing trees. Unlike their leopard cousins, who possess the grace and physique for effortless tree navigation, the lion’s hefty build isn’t tailored for agility. However, small populations within a species sometimes develop unique skill sets that help them cope with or exploit their particular environment. Such is the case with the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha and select parts of Tanzania, where African lions have defied this norm.
The reason for this behavior is not entirely clear, but it appears to be related to learned behaviors and unique local conditions. For example, lions in Zimbabwe rarely climb trees, but in Lake Manyara, tree climbing seems to be a cultural habit learned after a plague of biting flies drove the lions into trees and warthog burrows.
Another reason why lions may climb trees is to escape the heat and survey the landscape for prey. In Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, lions live in smaller prides and share the park with large herds of elephants and buffaloes. When faced with a stampede of buffaloes that may endanger them, lions climb up into the branches, the safest place for them. Tree climbing lions often climb African sycamore fig trees or umbrella acacia thorn trees with horizontal branches not too far above the ground.
Lions climbing trees is not common, but where lions have acquired a taste for the experience and conditions that allow them to climb exist, they have taken to tree climbing with the zeal of converts. In Queen Elizabeth National Park, entire families of African lions climb trees, and the habit of going up in the trees has become entrenched as a culture. The fun of tree climbing appears to be a significant factor in this behavior.
The Unique Environment of the Ishasha Sector
Ishasha Sector, with its unfettered mood and diverse wildlife, offers a game-viewing experience unlike any other. The tree-climbing lion population, comprising less than 100 individuals spread across three prides, is a testament to the adaptability of these majestic creatures. Interestingly, this behavior is most frequently observed during the hot seasons, adding a touch of rarity to the already extraordinary.
This mostly savanna-type environment is unique because of its many fig trees. The large, heavy, horizontal, low-lying branches of these ancient trees can support the immense weight of full-grown Lions. The advantage that resting in such a tree provides to a Lion is an excellent vantage point to spot prey and other predators. The trees also provide ample shade. On hot days in central Africa, a common place to find Ishasha Lions is lounging in the lower branches of a massive fig tree. It is not unusual to see the entire pride, more than a dozen individuals, in a single tree, even cubs.
Beyond the enchanting world of tree-climbing lions, Ishasha offers a rich tapestry of natural wonders. The Ishasha River, meandering through the landscape, supports a vibrant hippo population, easily observed from the strategically located Ishasha Wilderness Camp. The riparian forest along the riverbanks harbors bushbuck, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and a variety of birds, including the elusive Cassin’s grey flycatcher.
Venture away from the river, and you’ll find light acacia woodland and savanna supporting large herds of Uganda kob, topi, and buffalo. Seasonally common elephants add an awe-inspiring element to the landscape.
Ishasha provides two main game circuits – the northern and southern loops, both approximately 20 kilometers in length. The southern circuit, passing through the main kob breeding grounds, proves more productive for lion sightings.
Where else can you see tree-climbing lions in Africa?
Other than Queen Elizabeth National Park’s Ishasha Sector, you can observe other populations of the elusive tree-climbing lions around Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park in Southern Tanzania. A few sightings have been recorded in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.
There have been a few sightings of tree-climbing lions in Kruger National Park and Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana on a South Africa safari exhibiting a similar affinity towards climbing trees.
Where to Stay in Ishasha
For those eager to embark on this unique tree-climbing lion safari experience, several accommodations cater to different preferences:
Ishasha Wilderness Camp: Located north of Ishasha gate, this camp offers a luxurious escape with 10 well-appointed tents situated by the Ntungwe River. Guests can indulge in 5-course dinners, guided birdwatching, and river walks, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the wild.
Ishasha-Ntungwe Tree Lion Safari Lodge: Situated 3 kilometers from the Ishasha Gate towards Kihihi, this lodge provides four simple yet comfortable safari tents set in an attractive forest. Solar-heated hot water in the ‘bush’ showers offers an authentic safari experience with reasonable set meals and friendly staff.
At The River: For budget-conscious travelers, this camp, located 4 kilometers from the Ishasha Gate towards Kihihi, provides cottages and camping options. With a small splash pool, outdoor showers with a view, and a little beach area offering river views, it’s a fantastic option for independent travelers seeking a closer connection with nature.
UWA Ishasha River Camp: Positioned 8 kilometers southwest of the gate, this campsite near the park HQ offers an affordable stay. While basic amenities include non-potable water, cold showers, and pit latrines, the unique setting along the Ishasha River provides a front-row seat to observe hippos and antelopes.
Spotting Tree Climbing Lions in Uganda’s Ishasha
If you’re eager to see lions climbing trees in Ishasha, here’s a simple safari plan for you. Start with an exciting gorilla trekking adventure in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. After that, hop on a drive through Ishasha Sector to track down the elusive cats and head north to spend a night in the northern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Another option, organized by Nkuringo Safaris, begins with chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest. From the chimps’ jungle, spend two nights in the northern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park, exploring the Kasenyi and Mweya game tracks. On the second day, embark on a boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel. Later, drive south through the Ishasha Sector to spot the unique tree climbing lions. Finish your adventure in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with a thrilling gorilla trek.
Let our safari experts assist you in planning your lion safari. We understand that planning a safari trip can be overwhelming, which is why we’re here to help. Our team can provide recommendations for tour companies, lodging options, and transportation logistics. We’ll make sure you’re in the perfect spot to witness these unique lions and create unforgettable memories on your trip through Uganda.
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